Many people across the world live with chronic pain. People can try to manage chronic pain by exercising, enjoying an active social life, and following any medication and treatment regimens their doctor prescribes.

Doctors may classify pain as acute (short-term), subacute (medium-term), or chronic (long-term), depending on how long it lasts.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, acute pain lasts less than a month. Injury, trauma, and medical treatments such as surgery are common causes of acute pain.

Subacute or unresolved acute pain tends to last 1–3 months and can develop into chronic pain.

The CDC guidelines describe chronic pain as lasting longer than 3 months. An underlying medical condition, medical treatments, or inflammation can result in chronic pain, but sometimes doctors cannot identify the cause.

This article explains ways to manage chronic pain, including tips and home remedies.

chronic pain Share on Pinterest
Carol Yepes/Getty Images

According to a 2022 study published in Pain, more than 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with chronic pain. Chronic pain has links to lower quality of life, greater medical spending, and significant economic costs. In a survey, participants most commonly reported chronic pain in their back, hip, knee, or foot.

Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) describes chronic pain in children as a significant public health problem and a leading cause of death in children around the world. It adversely affects them emotionally, physically, and socially.

However, a person living with chronic pain can take steps to reduce their symptoms and manage their condition.

For instance, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) advises exercising and continuing to work, if possible, to manage pain that will not go away. Staying active can help a person lead a fuller life.

While exercise may benefit a person living with chronic pain, the type of exercise they choose should not be too strenuous. People may consider:

  • walking
  • swimming
  • stationary bicycling
  • dancing
  • yoga or Pilates

A person can incorporate activity and stretching into their daily routine. Frequent short workouts are better than infrequent lengthy workouts.

A person should try to maintain consistent levels of activity whether they are having a good day or a bad day, as this may help reduce their overall number of bad days.

Maintaining an active social life may be difficult for people living with chronic pain, but it may indirectly help them be more physically active and reduce their symptoms.

A 2020 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology explored the link between social support and physical activity over time. The researchers reported that, although pain may prevent people from engaging in physical activity, social support can reduce this effect.

They found that social support affected people’s physical activity levels indirectly by reducing their pain. This was the case in both the general population and a subgroup with chronic pain. The authors concluded that improving people’s social support networks could lead to benefits for their physical activity.

It is important to talk with a doctor before taking or stopping any medication or other treatment for chronic pain.

A person can use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications to help them stay active. But it is important to use caution and remember that all medicines can have side effects.

Doctors generally consider the common pain medication acetaminophen safe for adults to use. Some people may also try nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, but not if they have another condition, such as a stomach ulcer.

A person can take these medicines according to the recommended dose every 4–6 hours if they are trying to get through a pain flare or an upcoming activity. They can take OTC pain medicines as recommended for 2 weeks. If the medications do not work during this time, a person should seek advice from their doctor or pharmacist.

Drug treatment for chronic pain may also target the underlying cause of the pain and might include medications such as:

  • antidepressants
  • antiepileptics
  • benzodiazepines and other muscle relaxants
  • bone-modulating drugs
  • corticosteroids
  • topical capsaicin, which is a compound in chili peppers
  • lidocaine, which is a local anesthetic
  • rubefacients, which can treat soft tissue disorders

Pain experts commonly recommend physical therapy. A short course of treatment can help a person living with chronic pain by:

  • enabling them to move more easily
  • providing pain relief
  • making everyday activities easier, including walking, climbing stairs, and getting out of bed

A physical therapist, chiropractor, osteopath, or occupational therapist can deliver physical therapy, which may involve manipulation, stretching, and pain-relieving exercises.

Typically, physical therapists provide guidance on the right type of exercises, while occupational therapists help with changes to a person’s environment that allow them to continue working and function better at home.

A person may begin to feel the benefits of physical therapy after only a few sessions.

Read more about physical therapy.

Meditation may lead to brain changes that make it easier for a person to deal with their chronic pain.

For instance, a 2020 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that meditation and mindfulness can lead to changes in cortical thickness in some areas of the brain, making a person less sensitive to pain.

Additionally, a white paper on non-drug pain therapy from 2018 concluded that doctors underuse drug-free treatments for pain. The authors reported positive effects of mindfulness in people with chronic pain from headaches, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Support from people who are going through a similar experience may benefit some people living with chronic pain.

For instance, a 2021 study published in Pain Medicine examined the benefits of peer-led support groups following NHS-provided pain management programs. The results showed that friendship and mutual understanding of effective coping strategies encouraged people to maintain their pain recovery after the program ended.

The members of these support groups felt empowered in helping each other reach achievements and prevent setbacks.

Some people try natural remedies for pain relief to avoid the possible side effects of OTC or prescription medications.

For instance, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that yoga, relaxation techniques, and tai chi could benefit people with chronic pain.

Additionally, a 2017 review found some evidence that mindfulness meditation could reduce chronic pain and depression symptoms and improve quality of life. However, the researchers noted a need for larger studies to evaluate the effects.

Some people also try using herbal remedies such as lavender, rosemary, and capsaicin to reduce chronic pain. However, it is important to talk with a doctor before incorporating any natural remedy into a chronic pain care strategy, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor the quality of herbal supplements.

Doctors define chronic pain as lasting at least 3 months. More than one-fifth of adults in the U.S. live with chronic pain, and it is a significant issue among children as well.

A person can take steps to manage chronic pain, including staying physically active — even on bad days — and taking medications as prescribed. Evidence suggests that having a social support network and attending peer support groups can also benefit people living with chronic pain.